Facility for Ecology Education

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While the Tsurugashima Project was in full swing, another project was progressing on the adjacent site. They were planning a solar power plant comprising solar panels laid out on a brownfield land of a former factory site. After the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, Japan’s energy policy, which had largely relied on nuclear power generation, was revised and solar power plants were increasingly considered as a potential replacement. The former factory site in the suburb was a perfect location for a solar power plant due to low housing demand in the area. Some people, however, questioned the feasibility of building such a large-scale solar power plant in the residential area.

Our experimental approach in the Tsurugashima Project caught much attention as an effective way of communicating with and engaging local residents. Incidentally, ten of my former undergraduate students who had participated in the project had just entered graduate school then. I came up with an idea of assigning them as leaders of the design process in which a series of public meetings and votes woud be conducted.

Even though the building we were planning was named “Facility for Ecology Education”, its contents had not been specified. While one can clearly picture what people would do in a facility like an elementary school or hospital, it is difficult to imagine what people would do in a new type of facility like this. Only the total floor area and the budget had been decided for the time being. I was concerned that residents wouldn’t be able to voice their opinions in such uncertain situations. We therefore devised a design method where students would serve in a role of an architect and present proposals to residents several times. This way, we would be able to incorporate the residents’ opinions at each step and discuss how to get them involved in the design process.

Models made by students served as an effective communication tool once again. These models were ad hoc prototypes based on what we know for sure at that point, and not detailed dioramas of buildings to be constructed. While the overall budget already had been decided, the client didn’t have a list of room requirements or floor area table. Because the local authority and the private company would split the construction cost of this educational complex, we were not sure who the main client was. Under such circumstances, we made models based on what we knew for sure namely the site configuration, floor areas, placement, roof shape and so on. Students presented these models at each public meeting and discussed what issues we needed to deal with based on the result of the voting.

When we presented models of ten design proposals, some of the proposals got zero vote for some reason. We took a second look and realized that they were all two-story buildings. We had a public hearing after the voting and learned that the residents’ association hall in the neighborhood is a two-story building and that the elderly residents were having difficulties going up and down the stairs. Based on the feedback, we started to apply a new design rule that “two-story buildings are not acceptable” at the next meeting. Even though we were not aware that only a one-story building would be acceptable in the beginning, some unacceptable conditions became clear through communication using physical models. Preconditions for design are often clarified by repeating this communication method.

All necessary conditions are not always clear when we start designing. On the contrary, we often find new issues after we transform our ideas into physical forms. Residents often express disapproval of a public building after construction has started, even when they had opportunities to express opinions at public hearings before construction. This is because they can recognize serious consequences of the construction only after they see the design in a physical form. The design process carried out by firstly setting “design concepts” based on public hearings and then having a designer decide its “form” often seems awkward, because most people don’t understand the essence of design until they see it in a physical form.


Reduction and Form

We learned another important lesson through this construction project. It was regarding the question of how to achieve common understanding of the gap between ideal and reality, namely the difference between the total required volume and the maximum buildable volume within the budget, between all parties in the collective design process. Generally, the client reviews all requests in advance and adjusts the overall volume to fit within the budget limit before placing order for design work. However, high level of communication is inevitable in the case of group order and collective design.

In the Facility for Ecology Education project, the required volume greatly exceeded the maximum buildable volume within the budget in the beginning. Each department of the local authority and the private company made specific requests separately –– including a power plant janitor’s room, ecological education classroom for school children, exhibition room for a railroad diorama made by a local company and so on. Moreover, each department wanted a dedicated toilet and kitchen so that they can maintain them individually.

It would be easy to start a discussion as soon as problems like these are found when working on a one-on-one basis between the client and the architect. On the contrary, it is difficult to find the right person to negotiate with when designing a multifunctional facility in collaboration with multiple parties. It seems that a similar problem happened in Japan’s New National Stadium design competition in which Zaha Hadid had been initially involved. In general, people tend to blame architects for going way over budget presumably due to his/her “egoistic design.”


Considering such situations, we took a rather tricky procedure of studying ten options and narrowed them down to three options by grouping together options by common characteristics, and then strategically presented to the audience estimates of construction costs of respective options. After taking a vote and carrying out discussion regarding the three options, we showed them the cost estimates and said, “These are the cost estimates incorporating all your requests.” In fact, all of the cost estimates turned out to be more than double the budget and as a result, we were able to verify that they were making too many requests that were way over budget.

In the public meeting, I asked them, “Which request do you think should be omitted, then?” I called this experimental approach the “cost reduction workshop.” People are accustomed to giving requests, but not reducing them. Public workshops generally present opportunities for citizens to freely express themselves, but sometimes make them lose a sense of humbleness. We wanted to show that “limits” of a project could be visualized in physical forms by expressing our ideas in models.

Takashi Asada at Kenzo Tange Laboratory wisely stated that “the essence of design emerges in the cost estimate adjustment process.” We can start the cost reduction process to discuss which request to eliminate only when the estimated amount greatly exceeds the budget. It would be better to have several options to compare when deciding which element is important or unnecessary in design proposals. I learned that this kind of methodology is called an “option approach” in policy studies.


Symbol and Form

Would it be possible to reduce the size of a building but still keep the design idea, instead of reducing the design idea altogether? In the process of narrowing down the options to three, we took a purely constructive approach of grouping options by common characteristics, articulating elements comprising each characteristic and classified them into different types. Hence, the three options inherit formal characteristics of the ten options. I gave names to the three options: the first one is the “church type” comprising a symbolic roof and a symmetric plan, the second one is the “station type” comprising a gently-inclined roof and a gate-shaped site plan, and the third one is the “alley type” comprising a space on an intimate scale and equipped with benches. The “station type” won the most popular vote.

If we were to select the most popular proposal, the opinions of people supporting other proposals would be ignored. In my view, voting should be considered as an effective means to bring out one’s sense of agency and the “majority rule” in decision making should not apply. After the vote, we held a public hearing and asked each participant the reasons for selecting a particular proposal and gained a better understanding of their needs.

After the “cost reduction workshop”, we eliminated excessive elements and provided shared toilets and rooms where possible, while keeping key components which people mentioned as part of their reasons for selecting a particular proposal and incorporating them in the facility. The final proposal was carefully designed so that all of the key components that were highly evaluated in the three proposals would remain. The three proposals had been determined in such a way that some of the original concepts from the original ten proposals would be preserved, which meant that the final proposal inherited some parts from all of the original components in some way.

This methodology may sound simple but is actually very difficult to implement, as architects must be properly trained and have the ability to precisely describe formal characteristics in words. It would be better to describe each characteristic in simple words. In my view, a semiotic method of summarizing each characteristic, such as “church type”, “station type”, and “alley type”, was effective in the collective design process, because it successfully evoked people’s imagination.

At a symposium at the city hall joined by the mayor and the citizens, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto made an objection to this approach. He stated that, “I find it too crude to label these forms that emerged through the process as a “church”, “station”, or “alley”. There is no church, station or alley in Tsurugashima. We should have a “dialogue with the past” instead of a “dialogue with the future.” The mayor objected that it would be difficult to understand this place as an extension of the past, because ties with the history had been broken during the rapid development of the suburban residential area; and we wouldn’t be able to create a new place here without taking a highly advanced approach of having a “dialogue with the future.”

Project Date: 2014.03.01

Location:Saitama,Japan
Completion:March,2014
Program:Environmental Education Facility
Structure:W
Number of Stories:1 story
Maximum Height:6,560mm
Site Area:499.00㎡
Footprint:127.82㎡
Total Floor Area:127.82㎡

Photo: Takumi Ota, Dep. of Architecture, Toyo Univ.

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10 proposals for 1st Public Meeting / May-11 2013

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10 proposals for 2nd Public Meeting / May-25 2013

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3 proposals for 3rd Public Meeting / June-22 2013

Station hut type | 43pts

Station hut type | 43pts

Church type | 19pts

Church type | 19pts

Alley type | 17pts

Alley type | 17pts

1 proposals for 4th Public Meeting / July-13 2013

1 proposals for 4rd Public Meeting / July-13 2013

1 proposals for 4rd Public Meeting / July-13 2013